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Associated Press
Actor Josh Duhamel and “Safe Haven” author Nicholas Sparks talk on the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the film.

Sparks writes about what women want to read

It works like this. Girl meets boy, preferably in a quaint seaside town. Happiness. They clash. Sadness. Gradually they realize that opposites attract and fall in love. Happiness. But they cannot be together because of leukemia/difficult parents/war/Alzheimer’s/a psychotic ex. Sadness. They get together anyway. Happiness. Somebody dies. Huge sadness. But the survivors lead richer, fuller lives for having known each other. Happiness. Publish, collect millions, turn the story into a film, collect more millions, repeat. Massive happiness.

That’s the algorithm that has fueled Nicholas Sparks’ success for the past decade and a half. Sparks, a business-finance major who sold pharmaceuticals before trying his hand at fiction, knows the value of a well-defined, reliable brand.

Every romance novel he’s written – one a year since his 1996 debut, “The Notebook” – has been a New York Times best-seller. “Safe Haven” currently sits at No. 1, and the film version, starring Julianne (“Footloose”) Hough and Josh (“Transformers”) Duhamel, opened on Valentine’s Day.

It’s Sparks’ eighth film adaptation and we’re only halfway through his bookshelf. Meanwhile, he’s developing three TV series for ABCFamily, TNT and Lifetime.

A 47-year-old “small-town guy,” Sparks lived in Watertown, Minn., as a child, and now lives with his wife and five kids in historic New Bern, N.C., not far from scenic Southport, where “Safe Haven” was filmed last year. He came to the Twin Cities last month with the stars in tow and talked about the business of crafting mass-market love stories.

Sparks believes that what women want from a love story is “female characters that feel absolutely real. Characters that are flawed, because everyone is, yet self-aware enough to know their flaws and to try to get better. In ‘Safe Haven,’ there comes a moment when Katie (the heroine, played by Hough) must decide to stay or go and she decides based on her fear of what will happen to someone else. Combine all that and put her in a situation where she can meet somebody. The kind of male character that when he loves, loves deeply, and not just for a couple of hours.”

Duhamel, who had read the script the year before, was the first to be cast. He came to the project with some misgivings.

“I wanted to do a Nicholas Sparks movie, but I wanted to do it in a different way,” he said. “They run the risk of being compared to the ones he’s done in the past. You want to separate yourself with something a little different.”

It wasn’t until he reconsidered it a year later that the story’s thriller and suspense elements convinced him it would stand apart.

“Even though the character didn’t feel the most dynamic, I loved the package. I’m a big fan of Lasse Hallstrom,” who directed the film straight off “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

He, Hallstrom and Sparks talked at length about how to make the character “less perfect,” Duhamel said. “He is having a hard time raising his kids and getting over the death of his wife.”

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